COPAKE, N.Y. -- Once they ignited the stack of carefully placed, 4-foot pieces of wood, the collier and his helper traded off, monitoring as many as a half dozen outdoor hearths for about two weeks. The three tiers of wood -- generally hardwood, never mixed soft and hardwood -- were covered with moss, leaves and soil to create a relatively airtight space inside.
Through a center hole, kindling was lit and smoke emerged. The aim was to slowly cook the wood without allowing it enough oxygen to flame. Colliers vented the mound to assure an even burn. The resulting charcoal was taken by wagon to the ironworks to serve as fuel in the processing of ore into pig iron.
Whole sections of the mountainous fringes of Mount Washington were cut off in the mid- and late 19th centuries to supply the voracious appetites of furnaces at Mount Riga (Salisbury, Conn.) and Copake (down the west side of Mount Washington in New York state) or the foundry at Dalzell Axle Works in South Egremont.
For a town such as Mount Washington, its agricultural land best suited to potatoes, its industry limited to four sawmills over the years, one gristmill and John Joyce's blacksmith shop, charcoaling was a major industry. When charcoaling was at its peak, so was the town's population, according to resident Cory Hines.
Hines gave herself a crash course in the iron industry and charcoaling in order to create a multi-panel exhibit , "The Black Art," now on display at Taconic State Park in Copake Falls -- in the old machine shop of Copake Iron Works. The project was underwritten by an anonymous grant to the town for the perpetuation of Mount Washington history. Richard Tovell of Housatonic did the graphic design for the display panels.
Hines said at a meeting of Friends of Copake Iron Works in July that she took the title of the exhibit from an Our Berkshires column in The Berkshire Eagle by Morgan Bulkeley III, published years ago.
Bill and Ruth Miles took her on a hike into the woods to visit a charcoaling site, Hines said, and showed her the remains of an old charcoaler's hovel.
Who were these colliers? Hines wondered. The ones who worked in the mountain above Salisbury, Conn., called "Raggies," were considered rather rough and uneducated. Many of those families lingered after the iron furnace closed. What about in Mount Washington? Were the wood cutters and colliers and teamsters hired crews from one of the furnaces? Were they Irish or Italian or Lithuanian?
Judy Whitbeck provided a tip about census records, and Jim Miller of Sheffield Historical Society tracked down a remarkably informative document -- an 1850 industrial census that listed eight Mount Washington residents who gave their occupations as colliers.
"All of a sudden, we knew Mount Washington farmers themselves cut charcoal for a living," Hines said during an interview. "One man alone, Isaac Spurr, said he produced 25,000 bushels of charcoal in one year and sold it for $1,584."
Rather than unkempt transients, the Mount Washington colliers, to Hines' delight, were regular townfolk.
"It was not a linear path to our discoveries," Hines said. "But we were open to it, to learning how charcoaling became an industry in a small town bracketed by iron furnaces."
Mary King Austin, another Mount Washington resident, at the exhibit's opening read one of the few surviving first-hand accounts of charcoalers in Mount Washington, a diary entry from Elaine Goodale's Journal of a Farmer's Daughter (1881).
"A strange, wild life is the collier's, exciting at times, and even perilous, when a pit ‘blows out' with a loud explosion, scattering firebrands far and near, or the treacherous crust gives way beneath their feet. But some evening soon I must pay them a visit and see for myself."
To see for yourself, consider a trip to Taconic State Forest.